Art Basel entices cautious buyers with an eye for quality

The world's biggest contemporary art fair opened in Switzerland on Wednesday with buyers demanding ever higher standards from galleries as the global economy stages a fragile recovery.

"We have clearly seen a recovery in what has happened in the past few months in the galleries and auctions," Marc Spiegler, the co-director of the show Art Basel, told AFP.

"For us, the effect of the crisis is that the quality has risen," he added.

Gallery owner David Nahmad also pointed to the flight towards known quality.

Works by novel artists relying on strong marketing to fetch inflated prices had been squeezed out in the more cautious market that followed the financial crisis, he noted.

"People are trying to protect themselves through investments in gold or art. Gold is easier to buy than art, you need a bit more knowledge to buy art. We are there to explain to people what is the real value of art," he said.

The Basel show can afford to pick and choose the best.

It receives more 1,100 applications from art galleries worldwide, but picks less than a third of them, allowing only about 300 galleries to exhibit in the northern Swiss city's huge exhibition halls over the five days.

The resulting collection, showcasing over 2,500 artists from 37 countries, is not only a feast for the eyes but also a thought-provoking display of artwork spanning the 20th and 21st centuries.

Staples such as Picasso, Andy Warhol and Joan Miro count among prominent names at the show.

But there are also more recent works by icons such as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and US contemporary sculptor Paul McCarthy.

Hauser & Wirth featured McCarthy's "dwarf" series, while another gallery displayed a series of photos of the Eiffel Tower by Lagerfeld.

Passers-by paused for a second look at a striking montage of photographs by Yao Lu that resembles a series of Chinese traditional landscape paintings.

Dealer Bruce Silverstein, who featured the Chinese photographer's work, noted that the picture reflected a new trend.

Photographers were once easily limited by their physical surroundings but that has changed in the digital age, he argued.

"With the advent of computerisation, they are capable of creating new realities - realities that painters could only dream of accomplishing through paintings," he told AFP.

"So they are actually ahead of the painters for the first time in history."

Besides showcasing such latest trends in the art world, this show also affords art lovers a glimpse of rare pieces before they are snapped up by private collectors.

Nahmad pointed in particular to a 1910 painting by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.

"It's a historical document. So it's not really for sale," Nahmad told AFP.

Even if galleries are experiencing a return of buyers as the crisis subsides, some US gallery owners highlight the uncertainty surrounding the impact of the recent plunge in the euro on art sales.

"Last year we did extremely well," said Douglas Baxter, president of the Pace Gallery in New York, noting that the weak dollar boosted European buying power.

"Last year the euro was very high against the dollar but this year, not so high. So it will be interesting to see how it works out," he said.

Others are more optimistic.

"The show has only been open a few hours, but we've had considerable interest, transactions already, so I think that there is a softening - people are coming back to art," said Silverstein.

Judging by the red dots on the tags of the art pieces - signalling sales - purchases did indeed appear to be leaning towards established names and quality.

A few hours after the show previewed to special guests Tuesday, works marked as sold included a line drawing by Picasso, another by Egon Schiele and paintings by Paul Klee and Max Ernst.

Art Basel closes on June 20.

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